In Lebanon, vintage film posters question Western cliches - GulfToday

In Lebanon, vintage film posters question Western cliches

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A visitor observes vintage cinema posters displayed at an art exhibition in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

A pale woman rides through the desert, flanked by armed men on camels, a palace shimmering in the distance. This is Lebanon -- or so someone thought in the 1950s.

At a Beirut cultural centre, Lebanese film buff Abboudi Abu Jawdeh is exhibiting vintage film posters from his collection that show off a lost art, but also offer insight into decades of Western cliches of the Arab world.

On a guided tour, the collector gestures towards the desert scene, which is an Italian poster for the 1956 French movie "The Lebanese Mission".

"This is from the artist's imagination," the 61-year-old says, standing beside the image featuring the camel riders and a palace resembling India's Taj Mahal.

"He knew Lebanon was in the East, so he did this," he says, despite the country having ski slopes and sand only on its Mediterranean beaches.

Abu Jawdeh moves along to another poster for the same film, this time featuring an oil well.

"I hope we will have some," he says, as his country only this year starts exploration for the hydrocarbon off its coast.

'Orientalists'

Abu Jawdeh first began collecting posters in his teens, starting with films starring American actors Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood.

Visiting old cinemas in Lebanon and across the region, he unearthed a world of images -- for more foreign films, but also thousands of prints advertising films from the Arab world.

Some of his finds in this rare collection date back to 1930s Egypt or Lebanon in the late 1950s.

Today he owns some 20,000 posters, stacked up to the ceiling at his publishing house, their bright colours shielded from the sunlight.

But as he collected, Abu Jawdeh also started noticing a trend in some of the Western posters for films set in the Middle East.

They "resembled the paintings that Orientalists painted of the region in the 18th and 19th centuries," he says.

There is Elvis Presley starring in a film called "Harum Scarum", and a British-Egyptian comedy reportedly inspired by late Egyptian king Farouk's unrequited passions for a belly dancer.

'We're not all belly dancers'

"Come to savage seething Arabia on a terror search for forbidden treasures of the ages," reads the tagline for the 1957 action film "Forbidden Desert".

Late Lebanese-American academic Jack Shaheen analysed portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood films.

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Abboudi Abu Jawdeh shows part of his vintage cinema poster collection at his office.

He watched more than 900 movies spanning a century to the early 2000s, and found only five percent showed Arab roles as "normal, human characters".

Instead, a whole people was systematically dehumanised or vilified. Often, all Arabs were Muslims, and all Muslims were Arabs, wrote the researcher of Christian descent.

Female characters were largely belly dancers or enchantresses, silent "bundles of black" or "terrorists".

Abu Jawdeh says that he and others may not have always rejected such depictions.

"We too liked seeing a belly dancer," he says.

But the public now will likely see the posters differently, he adds, welcoming a fresh-eyed reevaluation of how the West has viewed the Arab world.

Agence France-Presse